A humbling 'Gift'

Elder in Residence discusses UNC’s first monument to American Indians
Mar. 27, 2013 @ 05:25 PM

Senora Richardson Lynch is known for her handmade pottery and bead work that reflect her heritage as a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe. When UNC asked her to create a work of public art for the student union, the project posed a different challenge.

“I never really thought of myself as this type of artist,” Lynch told a group of students during a Wednesday tour of “The Gift,” the mosaic walkway outside the Frank Porter Graham Student Union that she designed and completed in 2004. “So I took my knowledge of bead work and brick work … and based my design on that,” Lynch said.

She took her design to Don Luse, the now retired director of the student union. “He had a vision for the campus … and he wanted to make sure people from all nationalities and all groups felt welcome on campus,” Lynch said. With “The Gift,” she set about “to do something that could represent all people.”

Lynch is the 2013 Elder in Residence, an annual program of the American Indian Center at UNC that brings a prominent elder in the native community to campus. This week, in addition to the tour, Lynch has given lectures, and visited classes in different disciplines to discuss her work, said Randi Byrd, community engagement coordinator with the American Indian Center. Lynch’s pottery and art work are on permanent display at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh as well as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. Her art studio is in Warrenton, where she lives. She is married to Dalton Lynch, and she has a daughter, Elizabeth Qua Lynch.

“The Gift” is about 240 feet long and 40 feet wide and is UNC’s first monument to American Indian culture. The mosaic bricks contain many symbols important in American Indian culture, and Lynch discussed the symbols as well as some of the process she used to create the work. The walkway begins just outside the steps that lead from South Road. Lynch said that entry point represents “the door into your life and into your path.” She pointed to a mosaic pattern representing corn, which is important in native culture as the staff of life.

The turtle represents life and longevity, and the dogwood the beginning of new life “to symbolize that we always have a fresh start,” Lynch said. Eagle feathers, considered a high honor in Indian culture, are represented as a circular eagle shield. “Your eagle feather will be your diploma,” Lynch told the students.

The walk ends with a design of a medicine wheel, considered a sacred symbol. Lynch said she had second thoughts about using the symbol, but decided sharing it was important to helping visitors understand native culture. The wheel represents humans’ connections with birth and death, as well as the four elements of wind, water, earth and fire. “A lot of my work is symmetrical – it has to have balance,” Lynch said of her pottery work. She wants visitors who walk “The Gift” to experience that same sense of balance.

Some of the students attending the tour were in American Studies professor Chris Teuton’s class in the American Indian novel. “We were interested in different ways to tell stories through art, beyond the written word,” Teuton said. Carly Griffin, a student in Teuton’s class, said she had filmed student projects previously at “The Gift.” After walking the path, Lynch led the tour group to a second-floor overlook to allow visitors to see the full work. “Being up here is a whole different experience,” Griffin said. “It makes me proud to go to this school, with so much diversity.”

The mosaic was a first for Lynch, as well as the architect and brick masons who contributed to “The Gift,” Lynch said.

“I’m so humbled at being chosen” to do the work, Lynch said as she surveyed “The Gift” from the overlook window. “Hopefully, everyone that walks on it will have a great memory.”